The Importance of the Darkroom In Photographic Education

By: Stan McQueen

Being largely self-taught, I didn't have the advantage of a formal photographic education, but I think I can apply the process of my scientific education to photography. We learn to walk before we learn to run, and we learn to crawl before we learn to walk. We are taught arithmetic before we learn algebra and calculus. We learn to do arithmetic "by hand" before we use a calculator or program a computer. When we used to use slide rules, we learned to estimate the magnitude of the result before we calculated it with the slide rule - so that we could tell whether the decimal point was in the right place.

In his 1958 short story, "The Feeling of Power," Isaac Asimov tells of a future time in which everything is done by computers and calculators and humans have forgotten how to write and do arithmetic. A technician reverse-engineers the electronic circuitry to re-discover the principles of mathematics. He shows that humans can do math independently of the computer. It gives him a feeling of power to be able to multiply or divide two numbers using his own brain.

It seems to me that experience with developing film and making prints gives one this same feeling of power. Even though it has been more than 40 years since I developed my first roll of film, I still get the same thrill when I open the film drum and see that there are visible images on what was previously a blank sheet (or roll) of plastic. And though I no longer use a darkroom for printing, I feel much more connected to the image when it is scanned from my film than I do when it was taken digitally, probably because it requires more personal investment of time and effort.

I really doubt that one will learn photography better by going out with a fully-automatic digital camera and an empty memory card than by going out with a manual 35mm camera and a few rolls of film. Things learned slowly last longer than things learned quickly, as anyone who has taken summer or short-term college courses can attest.

Then there is the resource issue: when using a digital camera, the resources are effectively unlimited (one can carry a lot more batteries and memory cards than film--particularly if you shoot large or medium format). Having unlimited resources encourages waste; when I go out to shoot large format with 10 or 20 sheets of film, I am very conscious that I must make each shot count. That feeling of scarcity encourages me to spend more effort in composition and exposure.

I suppose there will come a time when film and the associated materials and supplies will no longer be obtainable. When that time comes, we as photographic artists will have lost some of our connection to the world. And perhaps there will be a time after that when some technician will reverse engineer the image production process and find a way to produce images without having to use computers and memory cards. Imagine what a feeling of power he will have!

Stan McQueen
Mr. McQueen's career as a photographer began when he developed his first roll of film in his bathroom darkroom at the age of 12. He succeeded in various kinds of photography, including portraiture, but his love of the outdoors-- "lonely places" in his words-has been the inspiration for most of his award winning photographs. Stan works in both color and black and white. Much of his best work has been done in Infrared because that medium provides that extra haunting effect.